For the first-time listener, Mr. Bungle’s California (1999) will probably feel like an exercise in stylistic eclecticism. Over the course of the album, and very often within individual songs, a bewildering medley of styles is referenced by the experimental rock group, ranging from metal and pop to Middle Eastern, circus and cabaret sounds. This heterogeneity is the essential marker of the group’s identity. However, the bassist, Trevor Dunn, has distinguished the band from others who employ ‘abrupt changes of style and genre-shifting’: in his words, Bungle tries ‘to make a song work as a song’.
Looking beyond the collage-like musical surface, there are indeed some elements which give their songs a sense of coherence. In this paper, I will explore how harmony and various structuring devices can help the listener to rationalise the seeming random juxtapositions. A number of the tracks allude to aspects of traditional song structures, and even in less schematic songs (such as ‘Goodbye sober day’), repetition can be an important factor. In a number of others the opening motives can be seen to influence the subsequent course of the music in a sophisticated fashion: for instance, in ‘RetroVertigo’, the alternation of major and augmented triads at the beginning is later transformed into a vertical juxtaposition. The so-called ‘Mr. Bungle chord’ points to the fact that harmony may indeed be one of the more stable points of identity within the band’s shape-shifting music.